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A Response to “Notes toward a Social Justice Electoral Strategy” By Bob Wing | Mel Rothenberg

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White sign on a fence that says Polling Station

I read Bob Wing’s analysis with great interest. It exhibits his usual depth and thoughtfulness in dealing with a fundamental political issue, and it has taught me much and surely deepened my thinking on electoral strategy. I agree with the general thesis that the left has failed to develop an electoral strategy and applaud his sharp analysis of how this might be rectified. His clear focus and singleness of purpose allows him to zero in on essential issues within a coherent framework.

I read Bob Wing’s analysis with great interest. It exhibits his usual depth and thoughtfulness in dealing with a fundamental political issue, and it has taught me much and surely deepened my thinking on electoral strategy. I agree with the general thesis that the left has failed to develop an electoral strategy and applaud his sharp analysis of how this might be rectified. His clear focus and singleness of purpose allows him to zero in on essential issues within a coherent framework.

My complaint, and the critique that follows, regards the dangers of too narrow a focus from which in certain respects I think his analysis suffers. My goal here is not to offer a counter electoral strategy, but the rather more modest one of embedding the analysis in a more general context by pointing out some of the unresolved problems of electoral work that necessitate, in my opinion, a broader framework.

Before beginning the critique are a couple of baseline agreements that I should mention just to anchor this exchange.

1. I agree that it is absolutely essential for us to have a serious electoral strategy. No political/social movement can be taken seriously if it doesn’t have a major impact on who is elected to office. We are too weak and strategically incoherent in the electoral arena to have such an impact in the immediate future; therefore a priority must be to overcome this weakness.

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2. I share Bob’s skepticism about electoral third party formations. Unless they quickly develop the mass following to determine electoral outcomes over a sustained time period and across a broad geographic area, they are soon effectively marginalized. That means, for reasons indicated below, that in the near future, our electoral activities should probably be concentrated around supporting progressive Democrats at local levels. How to do this while building up our forces is to my mind the key question.

Our dilemma I think can be characterized as follows: The left has two major political tasks in this period that are to a large extent in conflict. The first is to help defeat the right-wing surge that is attempting to roll back all the social legislation and benefits the working class, African Americans, and women have achieved over the past 80 years. This calls for mobilizing alongside of the center, the Obama Administration and the leadership of the Democratic Party, the broadest popular forces. The second task is developing a mass-based alternative to the neo-liberal agenda that is spearheaded by this same center, the Obama administration and the leadership of the Democratic Party.

I believe both these tasks are essential and have to be undertaken simultaneously. I think this is a devilishly difficult political challenge that the left as a whole has failed to confront.

I have phrased this contradiction very starkly but I think it is a sharper and more accurate description then the usual inside/outside conundrum. (Inside/outside indicates an organizational dilemma which can be resolved by being half inside and half outside but I maintain it is really a strategic question, which means we are dealing with the more difficult issue of who are our friends and who are our enemies, and how this changes from circumstance to circumstance.)

And it is here where arises, in my opinion, maybe deficiencies, or maybe just gaps, in Bob’s argument. The first is the failure to distinguish clearly between social and political movements.

Social versus political movements (I)

There is what we used to call a “dialectical relationship” between social and political movements. Every significant social movement has a major political impact, while political movements that are not backed by a mass social movement inevitably degenerate into opportunism and petty political maneuvering.

This, however, does not mean that they are the same beasts. Social movements are aimed at righting some major unjust practices in the social system. They can arise spontaneously but – to sustain themselves and obtain results – they must attract a core of committed activists and organizers who base themselves on and come to speak for a section of the population most oppressed by the specific practices. They achieve results by convincing a majority of the justice of their cause, but, more crucially, convincing the ruling class that the oppressed will no longer accept the status quo and have the capacity to seriously disrupt the social order unless their grievances are addressed. The ruling class is faced with the choice of repressing the movement by force, in the teeth of popular opposition, or yielding to the demands.

The most important social movements of my lifetime were the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and the Women’s Movement and they seem to fit the above pattern.

Political movements are not about correcting specific injustices, although they usually arise out of such struggles, but are about gaining power. They are not about changing certain rules or practices but about who gets to make and interpret the rules. The most successful US progressive political movements of the 20th century was the Socialist Party before WW1, and more importantly the movement around the New Deal which dominated our politics from 1932-45, the Roosevelt years. Since WW2 there has been no successful national progressive or left political movement. The most promising national efforts, as Bob points out, failed, being the Progressive Party of 1948 and the Jesse Jackson Rainbow coalition of 1988. There have been some significant local progressive political movements, the most interesting perhaps being the coalition formed around Harold Washington in Chicago in the mid 1980’s. On the right, there was the political coalition of Wall Street and religious fundamentalists organized around Ronald Reagan and most recently the Tea Party whose rhetoric, at least, has come to dominate the Republican Party.

Mass political movements are much messier then social movements. They lack the moral clarity of social movements. They generally involve coalitions of contradictory forces often held together by a charismatic leader. Unless they take a straight-ahead revolutionary and insurrectionary form, which has never happened in the US, they involve bargaining, backroom wheeling-and-dealing, nasty maneuvering and compromise as well as mass mobilizations. The path to some level of progressive political power in our capitalist democracy is winding and complex, and the level of power in the hands of popular forces is always constrained by the necessity of maintaining an economic order based on private property.

While Bob does indicate the limitations and necessity of both social and political movements, I think he would strengthen his argument for building a political movement by clarifying this distinction.

The diversity of the movement

A second kind of slippage, related to the above is who the “we” are. In some cases, he refers to a sociological demographic-youth, people of color, immigrants, single women, etc. It is not clear whether he regards them as a potential “base” that has to be developed, or mostly consolidated bedrock of a progressive movement. In other contexts, he refers to a much smaller category of social activists, presumably people engaged in serious struggle around community or national issues. There are important differences within the category of social activists – with people of color and working class mainly focused on community issues – while the people involved in national issues – the peace movement, the movement for universal health care and so on – have a more middle class, left character At other times, he seems to invoke a broad liberal/progressive coalition, which includes organized labor, but is primarily composed of and led by people who are white and middle class. Finally there is the left, which presumably is limited to Marxists or at least socialists and which could include anarchists, but they are certainly irrelevant to an electoral strategy. This final category is small, with organizations that are insignificant. But it is us, and it is presumably those to whom his paper is addressed.

While there is some overlap, these constituencies have distinct social and political characters, and they will play different roles in any electoral effort. We need a strategy that acknowledges these differences and elaborates the different and sometimes contradictory roles, a strategy that – at the end of the day – builds a united movement. In fact, the major and most difficult task of a political movement – as contrasted with a social movement – is to unite these diverse forces

For example, consider the 2012 national elections. A large section of the far left demonizes the Obama administration and considers him the main enemy. Of course, we don’t agree with them, but they have a large following among activist youth. They were the principle organizers of the large anti-NATO demonstration that took place in Chicago this May. This demonstration did explicitly target Obama. Moreover, given his international record, the more moderate peace forces are hardly in a position to defend him, and they are increasingly reluctant to do so.

On the other hand, the trade unions in Chicago – who have a strong progressive wing – are naturally and correctly supporting Obama, considering that the Republican alternative is most vigorously promoting union-busting campaigns. The large majority of labor leaders failed to mobilize for or even endorse the anti-NATO demonstration. Even the most progressive trade union leaders feel that they don’t have the room to break with Obama under these circumstances.

Building a united front under difficult circumstances

Now it may be unfair to demand a strategy that can build a unified movement within this highly polarized context. Unfortunately, I believe that such polarized situations will be common in the coming period. None of the seven strategic points that Bob raises really confront this problem.

I think what compounds this is a kind of casual attitude toward program. While Bob clearly indicate that the progressive bloc will have programmatic differences with the centrists, the concrete details of this are not to be found in this paper, the implication is that it is not our programmatic differences with the center that matter, but our basic values – that we are all pro-working class, anti-racist, anti-sexist and so on. I think this is a serious mistake.

Program reflects priorities, and changing social priorities is what a real political movement is about. The fact that the progressive social bloc lacks agreement on priorities means that it is almost impossible to resolve the contradictions among these forces referred. Bob argues that we should emulate the right in building our power but ignores the crucial fact that the right focused on program – anti-ERA, anti-abortion, Gun Rights, the public promotion of religion – to build a coherent movement. They could not have accomplished what they have without selecting concrete issues, setting real priorities, and campaigning on them in a very disciplined way. Simply promoting abstract racist and elitist values would not have done the trick.

The need for a broader framework

For us (particularly for Marxists), setting priorities involves a broad social and economic analysis of the fundamental direction of contemporary imperialism and the entire capitalist world. I know that, in a previous paper, Bob rooted the long-term political crises of the U.S. in the changing racial demographics of our population. I agree with this, and I think that he made an important theoretical contribution in elaborating it. But it is not enough.

Imperialism is currently going through a fundamental reshaping, as reflected in the current worldwide recession. Any broad strategy aimed at setting long term priorities must be begin with an analysis of this fact. Of course I don’t expect Bob (or me or anybody else) to suck a definitive analysis out of their thumb, but at least one must indicate a starting point. At the moment, I favor Dumenil and Levy approach in “Crisis of Neoliberalism”, but one could also begin with the Monthly Review Analysis of Bellamy Foster, or David Harvey’s approach of accumulation by dispossession, or Panitch and Ginden’s perspective as argued for in the Socialist Register, or the rise of Transnational Capital thesis argued by Jerry Harris and Ed Robinson. I don’t think any of these thinkers get it exactly right, but maybe some combination of their approaches is the way to begin. It may not even matter much where one begins, but the analysis must be framed in a sufficiently fundamental and general way that enables the setting of priorities.

In a sense, I am repeating the old argument of the need of a Marxist Party. It is likely however that the traditional notion of a Party is no longer valid and that we need a different organizational form to set priorities. They cannot be set spontaneously by an amorphous progressive bloc with deep internal contradictions, and they certainly cannot be set by a progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which is limited by organizational loyalty and which is totally focused on electoral struggles. I understand these are treacherous waters to wade in. But we had better go there, since – without setting priorities – the differences among progressives cannot be overcome, and any electoral effort is doomed to be marginal.

What I am arguing is you can’t hammer out a viable electoral strategy without first addressing these broader and deeper issues. If you want to have staying power and survive the inevitable ups and downs of political struggle, you’ve got to know who your friends and enemies are at different times and in shifting contexts (since your friends may well become enemies in different times and shifting contexts). This goes beyond gaining traction in the electoral arena.

A small cadre of intellectuals or leaders cannot settle these basic issues of framework and orientation, of setting priorities. Rather a broad layer of organizers and activists have to be brought into a process of discussion and debate and some organized structures set up to facilitate and resolve these debates. This is crucial to our long-term task of presenting an alternative to neo-liberalism.




(1) The next five paragraphs are taken from Labor and Occupy: Insights from Wisconsin, Presentation to the workshop on “The Great Wisconsin Resistance,” Chicago NATO Counter Summit, May 18, 2012.





Mel Rothenberg is a retired professor of mathematics and a long time activist in the Chicago Movement. Over the past decade, he has been active with Chicago Jobs With Justice, CAWI (a major anti-war group in Chicago), and he is a founding member of the Chicago Political Economy Group. He has published articles on diverse subjects such as national and international political economy and the transition to Socialism. You can reach him at [email protected]